Dish of the Week: The Mexican Hamburger at La Fiesta

La Fiesta's Mexican hamburger tastes like Denver.EXPAND
La Fiesta's Mexican hamburger tastes like Denver.
Mark Antonation
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Friday is the only day of the week that La Fiesta is open for dinner, but that wasn't always the case. Back in the 1960s, when the place first opened — converted from a Safeway by founder Michael Herrera in 1964 — La Fiesta was packed to the rafters (or at least to the acoustic panels of the drop ceiling that's a giveaway of the building's past) with folks wanting to dance, drink and dine. Looking around, you can still imagine the wide-open dining room jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with patrons swaying to live bands playing beneath the crimson drapes that still skirt the ceiling.

These days, you don't hit La Fiesta for a swingin' good time, but rather a warming plate of Den-Mex fare. Whether you come for lunch or dinner, you can grab a neon-orange booth and watch as waiters shuttle bowls of tortilla chips and margaritas in stemmed glasses (complete with bendy straws) to waiting customers. While most of the menu is recognizable to anyone who has ever set foot in a Mexican restaurant, the Mexican hamburger is a can't-miss if you want to delve into a little Denver culinary history.

This isn't your standard hamburger topped with Mexican-themed ingredients; New Mexico already lays claim to the green chile burger, and plenty of modern burger joints pile jalapeños, avocado and salsa onto a patty between two buns. In Denver, a Mexican hamburger is more like a burrito — only with a grilled hamburger patty swaddled inside the soft flour tortilla. (The late Joe's Buffet on Santa Fe Drive reportedly invented the dish, but La Fiesta was an early adopter.)

La Fiesta takes the time to actually char-grill the burger, giving it the distinct flavor of a summertime backyard cookout. There's also a layer of refried beans hidden inside, adding an extra component of flavor and substance. Topping it all is a generous helping of some of Denver's best green chile and a slurry of molten yellow cheese, which combine to form an almost queso-like consistency.

The Mexican hamburger at La Fiesta isn't a foray into hip and trendy dining, as found just a few blocks over on Larimer Street; it's not even a "retro" flashback served with a wink and a side of irony. Each bite lets you travel back in time to experience old Denver in a pure and simple form. Herrera, now in his nineties, still stops in for lunch, while his son Robert and other offspring can often be seen chatting with customers.

Meanwhile, a server is about to bring another bowl of chips to your table, so you'll be able to scrape up every last bit of green chile that clings to the plate like gravy.

La Fiesta, 2340 Champa Street, is open from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday (don't think about stopping by on the weekend). Call 303-292-2800 or visit the restaurant's website for details.

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